When working recently with a conference coordinator, as we put our heads together about the content that follows, she explained to me that because narrative work was at the cutting edge of the field, she hoped to “push out into something new, that was rooted in something older”. The “something older”, I gathered, was Narrative Therapy, as it was devised by White and Epston in the ’80s. Their method has been practiced for many decades as a humanistic intervention, one that tries to separate the person from the events that befell the person and then became their problem-saturated story . . . a story that they could, with the assistance of a therapeutic guide, de-role from and step out of. To give you a concise and yet vivid example of how the story is not the person, I want to share something wonderful that I recently heard from biologist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard: “You would not go to the doctor and say, I am the flu!”
Epston and White’s novel intervention of reclaiming self from a pathologized story of self was a way to help people change their relationship with the problem influencing their lives. Learning to speak one’s truth sometimes included writing and sharing letters to key characters in the story. This allowed for the story to be revised, a re-authoring of the story.
…a child cannot have a truly secure attachment to a parent if their parent hasn’t come to terms with, and shared, the story of their own childhood.
So, what, I was asked, is this “something new”, this Narratology that I and others are speaking about? Narratology is what I just demonstrated, in sharing the story of how the content for this article evolved. It’s a practice of storying, the sharing of an authentic account of what happened as we perceived it. And it’s a practice that’s not limited to therapists, much like the diverse audience I spoke to that day was not limited to therapists. It’s a practice that I believe can and should be employed by everyone: from doctors, lawyers, realtors and educators, to journalists, parents and clergy. It’s an anthropological way of learning a person, or a group of people, by discovering what they’ve lived, and how they hold that experience. It’s a way of respectfully communicating, and of getting into shared reality . . . the very currency of interpersonal attachment. In his new book, Mind (2017), Dr. Daniel Seigel astonishingly asserts that a child cannot have a truly secure attachment to a parent if their parent hasn’t come to terms with, and shared, the story of their own childhood. In other words, without this narrative, that parent remains something of a stranger, to themselves and to their child. Many decades before Seigel’s book, sociologist Jules Henry asserted in Pathways To Madness (published several years after his death) that the main predictor of whether a family will come through trauma with resilience, or not, is whether they have a shared narrative about it, as opposed to shared silence, and shame. Now, decades later, in our classrooms, teachers are finally being encouraged by the Department of Education to take the time to learn the back story of their students: who they live with, what they enjoy, what’s stressing them, and so on, as a way to both understand them and maximize their learning experiences. Even collaborative divorce lawyers are being trained to learn the whole stories of their clients, not just their current grievances, so that they might anticipate, and then better guide them through the challenges of ending their marriages; and doctors are being trained to ask for more than just a history of surgeries, genes, and allergies. In fact, Columbia and New York University now offer entire graduate programs in Narrative Medicine. Narratology is a simmering revolution of relating and relatedness, and happily its possibilities go well beyond the boundaries of our clinical consulting rooms.
So that’s what this new old thing is all about, and it melds handsomely with the growing mindfulness movement that invites the cultivation of the kind of full presence needed to produce good listeners for all these stories! Sad to say, listening is not a formal part of graduate study, in any field, though it is both an art and an act of mindfulness. Most of you reading this article listen for a living, probably with compassion and hopefully with presence and intelligence. I simply hope to offer some additional tools to heighten your ability to listen, and to augment your own listening practices with a deeper questioning practice.
To continue the narrative with some of my own. I began my education and career as an English major and then a professor of writing, and went on to become a theatre director who also practiced and taught playwriting and dramaturgy. This arcane term and practice is the core of what I hope to plant in you. Dramaturgy is a way of eliciting and listening to story, and of questioning the teller, prompting them toward discoveries and coherences beyond their current conscious knowing and, hopefully, when applied to the clinical process, alleviating their current suffering. This other word, coherent, is also key to my particular narratological practice, as I’m on the forensic path of helping the people I work with to create not just a fuller story (with much that has been forgotten filled in, and much that has been misunderstood reframed) but a coherent one. This endeavor draws on the modality of coherence therapy, developed in the ‘90s by my colleague, Bruce Ecker, which looks at the symptoms our clients present not as pathological problems, but as necessary solutions. These solutions may not seem rational, but they are coherent with the learnings and obstacles that our clients encountered. As I listen to and question their stories, it’s these coherences that I’m listening for and sharing aloud with them. To demonstrate this kind of coherence, I ask you to consider a client of mine who came in suffering from extreme workaholism and fearing that he might have a stroke. I’ll call him Don. In listening to and questioning Don’s story, it became clear to us both that being constantly and productively busy was a solution he’d learned as a child when living with a raging bipolar father, and whose radar he wished to fly below. Had I simply tried to help him toward working less, without that cause and effect being explicitly in place, I would have been swimming against the tide of his own survival schema, because being idle was still felt as a far greater danger than working too much. Once this early solution was made explicit, we then had to cull enough repressed traumatic memories to give greater evidence to the original need for this coherent solution, then wade through the profound grief about a joyless life that’s been lived in hypervigilance, and then begin to test the viability of a new habit, one safely enjoyed moment of leisure by one safely enjoyed moment of leisure. This creating of a mismatch in the danger/leisure pairing also created a juxtapositional new learning in his brain. That entire process is called memory reconsolidation.
“When we write, we listen to ourselves in a holding environment equivalent to the one created by an attuned parent.”
Initially Don had merely told me that his father “had a temper” . . . the bulk of the traumatic memories were out of this awareness. It was my pulling for details, and my horrified reaction to them, that opened up the knowing about what happened, and how he learned to cope with it. In order to listen as a good dramaturge, one must also become a good questionologist—someone who poses good and creative questions about what they’re hearing, someone who listens for themes and patterns and helps the teller to connect the dots. Drawing forth story, and then opening it out into coherence through good dramaturgical questions, are two of the three strands that make up the trifecta of the work I call narrative reconstruction. The third strand is what I refer to as the write brain. This involves using a writing practice drawn from the client’s own material to prompt both memory recovery and memory reconsolidation. Psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker discovered that when we write, we are tacking between the right and the left hemispheres of the brain—one that holds memory, and one that holds the story-telling drive, as in hypnosis and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). In so doing, we remember things previously out of awareness. When we write we also become more intimate with ourselves, more transparent to ourselves, and better regulated in the bargain. As Dr. Mark Epstein asserts in his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life (2014), “When we write, we listen to ourselves in a holding environment equivalent to the one created by an attuned parent.” In essence, when we write, we write and care about what we have to say—we enable a secure attachment to ourselves. This is a kind of secure attachment that can be accessed at any time, and may be the first that many of our clients, particularly those who suffered traumatic aloneness, have known.
Though we have long-standing degree programs in music, dance, art, and drama therapy, we have not yet codified writing therapy. I hope to encourage you to consider adding it to your practice, whether or not you like to write or have ever written for personal, professional, or healing purposes. I want to persuade you that this is something that you can and should be offering to your clients as part of your work. If it feels completely foreign to you, I encourage you to start keeping a journal daily, or to consider taking a writing workshop.
But let’s begin at the beginning, with the culling of The Story. At the start of my work with every client, I ask him or her to tell me “the story of them”. Having someone solicit your story, listen one hundred and fifty percent to every word, ask smart questions that open your own story up to you, and notice the major themes within it is, I believe, perhaps the single greatest act of healing one human being can bestow upon another. The themes of our lives are what make us uniquely us and, for better or worse, these themes are our shelters, our fingerprints, our signatures. Discovering them with a radical listener/questioner is both life-changing and brain-changing. It’s something that only sentient beings can experience. It’s what makes us human, connects us to one another, and gives our existence meaning. It’s the path toward our own truth; and I also fervently believe that knowing this truth—and only this truth—of who we are, can liberate us from delusion and suffering.
The man we call the Buddha said: “Nirvana is the destruction of delusion.” Even our most rational clients are bedeviled by a delusion of some kind, usually a distorted belief about themselves, or the world, which was learned in childhood. We learn about the world in the families of origin that comprise our universe as children, particularly in those first five years before full-time attendance at school widens our perspective. And even then we’re already seeing primarily what we were taught to see in that original group of two or three, or four or five, depending upon how many siblings and how many parents we had. As you all know from your knowledge of what makes research technically valid, no scientist would ever draw generalized conclusions from data based on an N of two or three, or four or five. But that’s what children do, and whether their parents are highly able or highly compromised, their way of parenting and the culture they establish (their terms of engagement as it were), and the way they view us, become the rules of the world. Often this represents a delusion, and that delusion grows with us into adulthood and shapes our relationships with the people beyond our families, as well as with the families that we might go on to create. And the misfit between what we believe and expect of the world and ourselves, based on what we learned in that original universe, and how and what we come to actually feel in the world and with ourselves, is often what causes our greatest misery and dis-ease.
I believe that our job as healers is not only to help connect the dots between what clients observed and were taught in that original universe to their current suffering, but also to discover with them that the ways in which they frame “the current problem” is actually “the old solution”. Their solution may not be serving them well, but it was, in some way, preferable to the original problem, as with my workaholic client. Don grew up believing that every adult was unsafe, and relaxation was akin to deadliness. It’s also our job to demonstrate the logic and coherence of these painful present-day manifestations as the natural and legitimate outcomes of what they learned, delusional and irrational though some of those learnings might appear on closer reflection, and painful though the accommodations to them may be. In other words, we must de-pathologize their troublesome behaviors. Don works seven days a week. He believed that he was simply neurotic, as did all his friends and his partner. The demonstration of his urgently necessary learning—to stay busy in order to sustain safety—as part of the creation of a more coherent narrative, was his path toward health, Nirvana, and modern-day liberation. In her most recent book, Real Love, Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes:
Our minds are wired to create order, a cohesive narrative, and our stories are our anchors. They tell us who we are, what matters most, what our lives are all about. . . . Fortunately, as soon as we ask whether or not a story is true in the present moment, we empower ourselves to reframe it. (Salzberg, 2017, pp. 25–26)
Don was no longer subject to the rages of his now dead father, but because he didn’t even remember these episodes well he still expected danger everywhere. Don had no notion of what his busyness was solving until I asked him whether he would take the deal if his workaholism could be eradicated tomorrow. I received an immediate and unequivocal “No!” “Why?” I asked. “Because”, he quipped, “if I had more time, I would just get into trouble!” Indeed. That survival schema was actually a traumatic memory.
In order to help our clients connect these dots between what they were taught and what they’re now stuck in, and then reframe the problem, we must invite clients to re-member. This is not a simple task when a good fifty percent of them claim to not recall much of their childhoods, particularly in those crucial world-shaping first five years. But in order to form a coherent narrative, and in so doing to heal, implicit memory must become explicit. Again, in his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein writes:
Explicit memory . . . allows for conscious recollection. It is also called narrative memory, and is what we normally think of when we talk about remembering something. It is mediated by thought of one kind or another, and has a quality of reorganization. Raw experience is sorted out and reformulated and given coherence by the mind. A process of symbolization, of which language is a tool, is employed. When a parent helps her child regulate her anxiety by reflecting back what is happening and making it more tolerable, she is setting the stage for this kind of second-order symbolization, for a flow between the implicit and the narrative. Explicit memory functions through reflective self-awareness—when we have this kind of memory, we know that we are aware . . . the re-membering aspect of mindfulness, like the writing process . . . creates a bridge between implicit and narrative memory. One begins to give name and form to one’s inchoate feelings, to gather one’s dissociative elements back into the self.